Mormon rhetoric: the social uses of meaningless words

“I know that the Church is true” strikes me as one of the most rankeling phrases that I heard in my early childhood.  I desperately wanted to know that the Church was true, but I never could figure out precisely what it meant to know that it was true.  The phrase held the promise that one day, if faithful enough, I would be initiated into knowledge of “the” truth.  But in the meantime, it teased me for my lack of understanding.  At the moment, I still can’t claim to understand precisely what the phrase means.  But I have concluded that a substantial part of the phrase’s considerable use and power resides precisely in its lack of definable meaning.

Lately, I have been thinking about why we use the rhetoric and reasoning skills that we do, and I have concluded that we use the language and thinking skills that are most rewarded in the local contexts in which they apply.  For example, English professors often consider texts and language to lack clear meaning, because their professional livelihoods depend on them uncovering new meanings and connections with a canonical text.  This commits them to thinking that no one can easily determine what a text “means.”  By contrast, a legislator wants to create language that is unambiguous, since society functions more smoothly when the rules are clear.  Professionally and socially, they have incentives to minimize misunderstandings.  What makes rhetoric and reasoning skills good is always a function of their suitability to local contexts and needs.

Similarly, I want to suggest that as members of the Church, we use rhetoric and reasoning in ways that promote certain priorities.  The mode of rhetoric and reasoning that I think is most pervasive in Mormon culture is what I will term a “rhetoric of harmony.”  For example, phrases like “I know the Church are true,” “the scriptures are the word of God,” or “family values” are in one sense empty phrases, since we never define what we mean by these terms; but their emptiness allows them to serve the purpose of creating harmony amongst members.  Their very definitional meaninglessness makes them effective tools for glossing over differences between members, generations, and cultures who agree in the spirit the words express if not their meaning.

Since we commonly employ them more to signify our appreciation for and membership in the Church than to express something that carries clear meaning, they allow us to focus on our commonalities while avoiding potentially divisive debates about the specifics of what I suspect are our rather diverse beliefs.  Similarly, one of our most common modes of reasoning is to ask how a scripture plucked from its textual and historical context applies to us today (example: we are now reading the D & C thematically rather than chronologically with an eye to historical context in Sunday School).  This decision to gloss over history and remove the discussion from the text allows for multiple views to be harmoniously expressed without risking historical or factual conflicts.  It creates a guise of continuitity in beliefs amongst the membership.  Insofar as a primary aim of Church is to promote harmony and love amongst the community, these rhetorical and reasoning skills arguably promote that purpose well.

I say arguably, because the risk of rhetoric and reasoning that promotes harmony is that it alienates members who might not see harmony as the aim of religion.  For members who understand religion to be, for example, more about a quest for better knowledge and understanding, the rhetoric of harmony often shuts down intellectual inquiry that by its nature tends to find problems with what we currently know.  Since the rhetoric of harmony is largely composed of phrases that now recognizably signify membership in the LDS Church, members who might wish to adopt a rhetoric more suited towards inquiry and definitional meaningfulness also risk sounding un-Mormon in their language and thus disturbing harmony.

Assuming that our rhetoric and reasoning is in part a product of its compatibility with the goal of harmony and continuity in Church culture, I left to wonder to what extent we might now have an over-emphasis on harmony.  (I think that organized religion might necessarily have a bias towards harmony, since organizational needs for consistency and growth favor harmony over unsettling intellectual innovation.)  Does our rhetoric indicate that we value Church more for the harmony it brings to our life than the knowledge it gives us?  Is this a consequences of individual or institutional needs?  Can we adopt a rhetoric that promotes both harmony and inquiry without feeling that we are losing a vocabulary that is now essential to signifying one’s Mormoness? 

Comments

  1. If you haven’t read it, you might find David Knowlton’s essay “Belief, Metaphor, and Rhetoric: The Mormon Practice of Testimony Bearing,” of interest.

  2. I completely agree with your critique of those meaningless Mormon phrases. While I agree with the more proximal pragmatic causes you already wrote about, your comments seem to infer that this is a result of intentional, top-down “propaganda” intent on spreading harmony. Is that along the lines of what you think? I guess I’m more interested in what you think about the more distal causes of these usages.

  3. Must a phrase have only one, non-ambiguous meaning in order to avoid the black hole of meaningless-ness?

    Isaiah did pretty well with different layers of meaning (at least I think so). Think, for example of “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son . . . .” And Jesus told parables that are capable of many layers of understand.

    He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Her too.

  4. Actually, I don’t see this as intentional, so much as that we unconsciously have incentives to promote harmony in our community – and to promote harmony over other values if they are in conflict. For example, if we want our meetings to be pleasant, if we want to be good missionaries, if want friends in the Church, etc., then we need to minimize differences and get along with others. I think that these needs expand as we grow bigger, because we start including people with more diverse beliefs. I think that the people who tend to stay active in large organizations are also the people who have become comfortable with the need to be harmonious, so there might start to be some self-selection towards favoring that value. But, no, I don’t think there is any propoganda pushing us towards harmony.

  5. #3 – Isaiah is pretty awesome.

  6. #1 – Thanks, J.

  7. Testimony of a 5 year old on my mission.

    I know the Book of Mormon is Blue, and Joseph Smith is a man.

    Still works

  8. #2 – To expand on my reply in #4, I also think that people who assume management positions in organizations tend to be exceptionally good at promoting harmony. So, perhaps institutional pressures do make people who value harmony Church leaders at the local and upper-levels. And the rhetoric and values of our leaders probably do have the most influence in Church culture. But, again, this is only speculation, and I don’t think our huge focus on harmony (which is a good value)and rhetoric that promotes it is a consequence of intentional design.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    For reasons of my own I always use the word “believe” rather than “know” when bearing testimony. I do get some disharmonious raised eyebrows sometimes…

  10. Okay, meditating on these comments has helped me hone an additional thought: In the Darwinian struggle over what rhetorics might come to dominate an organized church culture, rhetorics that promote harmony amongst members contribute to the survival of that institution and are therefore likely to survive.

  11. But, as in evolutionary theory, the fact that a certain rhetoric survives does not mean that it is automatically better than rhetorics that might not have had as much success. That would require a debate over criteria.

  12. StillConfused says:

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. I have wanted to bring it up on this forum, but alas, I am a bit too confused to be an author. Below are excerpts from a telephone conversation that I had with a member of the high council last week. I refer to this call as “my Mormon intervention.”

    Call: after obligatory initial pleasantries.

    HC: Sister SC, may I ask you a personal question?

    SC: Certainly.

    HC: Do you know that Joseph Smith personally saw God the father and his son Jesus Christ?

    SC: Do I know it? Of course not, I wasn’t there. Am I willing to accept it? Sure

    HC: Hmm. I see. Well do you know that President Monson obtains revelations directly from God?

    SC: Do I know it, nope, they generally don’t let me in while they are doing that. But am I willing to accept it? Sure.

    HC: Well if you do not KNOW that what he is saying is true, why do you follow the teachings?

    SC: Good point sir, I follow the teachings, not because they are in a book somewhere, but because they are what are good for my soul. I do not drink, not because it is in a book somewhere, but because it is bad for my body. That is why I am not tempted to sin the way that others apparently are.

    More, much more, but I don’t want to totally thread jack (just only slightly)

  13. I think that the language creates an aspirational culture.

    After all, when you say “I know the church is true,” there are expectations that you…actually ‘know’ it’s true. Regardless of how shadowy the word “know” is because it’s rarely defined, that’s why people will look at you awkwardly if you say “think” or “believe” or imply that knowledge is uncertain or impossible.

  14. MikeInWeHo says:

    Lots of other sub-cultures (religious and otherwise) use in-group language as well, of course.

  15. I really don’t think those are empty phrases except for someone who wishes to get polemical with the person who says them.

    Someone who says “I know the Church is true” in their testimony knows exactly what they mean.

  16. SC,

    I have generally looked at these kinds of statements more as “rhetoric of group identification”, rather than expressions of harmony. The desire to fit in and be part of the group seems more a first cause than creating harmony. You’ve got to belong before you start pushing for harmony and cooperation. Hence, some may mimic the statements, dress, or behavior patterns to be included.

    I admit to being surprised at the direction the Gospel Doctrine class has taken, though, with a topically arranged schedule, as opposed to a chronological or even just going through the sections numerically. I can understand trying to help folks live in the here and now, but the historical context can also be important, and I hate to see us miss it.

  17. I don’t really have anything to add at the moment, but (as someone who studies language, and who also deliberately uses non-traditional rhetorical patterns in church) I wanted to say I found this post super interesting. It’s given me some food for thought. Thanks!

  18. Also, an “I know the Church is true” testimony often disrupts harmony, don’t you think? Look, for instance, at the dissonance it has caused you. In fact, one could argue that the phrase actually makes a lot of people really mad.

  19. I think I “know” the church is true the same way I “know” my husband loves me. It’s subjective, and I could be mistaken, but insofar as it’s possible to “know” something one has no objective proof of, I have no problem with the word “know.” I am less certain of what it means for the church to be “true.” But that’s another tangent. :)

    I appreciate the points you make here, particularly about harmony vs. a spirit of inquiry. I think, at this point in my life, that harmony is what I go to church for. Inquiry is something I do privately. That works for me, of course, but is frustrating for those who prefer (at least occasional) communal inquiry, the give and take of doctrinal discussion and whatnot (the technical term escapes me). I could stand a little more tolerance of inquiry and definitional meaningfulness, I think. It’s why I value forums like this one. But I don’t know how much harmony I’m willing to sacrifice to achieve that in the institutional church.

  20. “Someone who says “I know the Church is true” in their testimony knows exactly what they mean.”

    Really, John? I use it but I don’t know exactly what it means…

  21. I think when most of us declare our knowledge that the church is “true,” we are expressing a conviction that the church is what it says it is — the restored Church of Jesus Christ on the earth. It’s just shorthand. I’m not sure I would read too much more into it.

  22. I remain convinced that “The Church is True” simply reflects non-propositional senses of true. (Reflecting in non-metaphoric uses such as truing a bike wheel)

  23. This discussion on the social uses of the phrase “I know the church is true” shows that the phrase is far from meaningless. The meaning lies mostly in what the phrase does, not what it says. I feel perfectly comfortable saying that I know the church is true, even though what I mean by “know,” “the church,” and “true” (and, for that matter, maybe even “I” and “is”!) may be different than some others in the congregation. Maybe some in the congregation know the church is true because they’ve heard a whispered voice or felt a burning in the bosom. I know it’s true because I’ve tried out the Mormon life and I find it quite agreeable. I feel new when I repent and take the sacrament, and I love funeral potatoes. Sometimes sacrament meetings are tedious, but at least we all take turns being tedious.

    Maybe I’ve read too much William James, but I can know something even if I didn’t observe it with my eyes and something can be considered true if it works–if it’s a “live option.” Fruits not roots. I learn the truth of a thing by my whole experience of it, not just by sensory observation.

    The church has always been strongly communitarian, and we use a lot of words to define the community. Think of the way we use the terms “the world” or “morality.” (The phrase “the world” rankles me much more than “I know the church is true,” and so does using simply the word “morality” to talk about one conception of sexual morality.)

  24. I think this explains why, when people outside the group try to look at the actual words used by the group, and then make deductions from them, it can cause the people in the group to get extremely irritable. For example: “You believe in ‘family values’ that means you should value our same-sex family.” However logical the deductions may be from the literal meaning of the phrase (and I’m REALLY not wanting to start up a SSM debate here, that was just an illustration), the people in the group have a particular idea about the words and when outsiders try to coopt them it not only sets up an intellectual debate, but an attack on one of the kinds of glue that the community uses to hold itself together (glue = the “rhetoric of harmony” phrases).

    You see this kind of borrow-and-turn-against rhetorical attack in politics all the time (“If you really valued personal responsibility, you would get tougher on CEO pay [or whatever]“).

  25. I avoid saying “I know the Church is true,” not only because of its ambiguity, but also because I want to say something that is uniquely mine, and admittedly because I know that on some level it signals to other like-minded individuals that I have wrestled with the question of testimony and testimonial rhetoric in the first place.

    It seems slightly vain, but I’ve had positive feedback from it. It makes others feel like even though they might not be comfortable saying “I know the Church is true”, they can still have a testimony. And I think this goes a lot further in promoting harmony than simply repeating empty phrases others have said.

    I also tend to think “I know the Church is true” a form of vain repetition…

    Good post.

  26. I do know, as well as I know anything at all, that the church is true, i.e. that its essential fact claims are correct, that it is what it claims to be. I don’t have any problem saying that or standing by it.

    I don’t think that means the prophet is infallible. I don’t think it means that everything in the Bible or Book of Mormon should be interpreted literally, as though it were a science textbook. I don’t even think it means that the RLDS (CoC), Strangites, or FLDS are not also heirs in some way to the same restored gospel we follow.

    I do believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that he did see a vision of God the Father and the Son, that the church was established by and is led by Jesus Christ.

    But if other people don’t, that’s fine. If they think it’s all inspired fiction, or even uninspired fiction, but want to follow it anyway, then I welcome that. These things aren’t the most important things there are, and the heart has reasons reason doesn’t know.

    I guess I have no problem at all with people asking questions, exploring possibilities, finding new ways to see the gospel. If their questions are just a cover for trying to prove to everyone else at church, all us benighted folk who have not the benefit of the questioner’s learning or life-experience, how dumb we are, then yeah, that’s a problem. I don’t think Sunday school or auxiliaries are the right forum for apologetics and debate.

    So long as people don’t try to tell me I don’t really know what I think I know, then I feel great welcoming them and fellowshipping with them no matter what their approach. In other words, so long as they’re acting as a friend of the restored Gospel, rather than trying to destroy it, then I think they should be welcomed with open arms, however, I’m not sure why it should rankle when I say I DO know the church is true. Does that make sense?

  27. #25: To risk saying the obvious, “I know the church is true” is a vain repetition only if it’s vain. But I wouldn’t be quick to judge others’ hearts like that. It certainly doesn’t feel vain on the rare occasion when I say it. But I think I get your point that repetitions can easily become vain if we don’t endow them with substance and conviction. Phrases lose some meaning on the way to becoming cliches, and it may make sense to say the same thing in new ways, like you said.

    But at the same time, there are only so many ways to offer a blessing on a meal, for example, or to say that you believe in the church. I hope the repetition doesn’t make it vain.

  28. W. — excellent point. Thank you.

  29. I agree that “I know the Church is true” can have multiple meanings, and I agree that, often, the person who says it knows exactly what he or she means by that.

    A problem for the listener is that we do not always know what the testifier means.

    The phrase is one used frequently by primary children bearings testimony (along with “and I love my mom and dad”).

    When I was that age, what I meant by saying “I know the Church is true” was (1) I believed the teachings of my parents and Church teachers regarding religion, (2) I had enough confidence in the individuals and teachings to be sure that the teachings were accurate, (3) I believed that God wanted me to belong to, support and participate in the Church, and (4) I believed that God somehow led the Church leaders. In other words, it was, for me, a statement of “belonging” and a statement of confidence in teachings.

    In seminary I learned, rightly or wrongly, that one could not truly “know” the Church was “true” unless one had a transcendent spiritual experience (either a singular event or one extended over time and multiple experiences) that led one to “know” in every [spiritual?] “fiber of one’s being”, without any doubt, whatsoever, that the “Church” (meaning the institution and its teachings) were divine, accurate, and without meaningful flaw. The most common description of that transcendent experience was a “burning of the bossom.”

    Thus, to say “I know the Church is true” was not, according to my seminary instruction, a completely and spiritually accurate statement unless one had had those experiences and all meaningful doubts had been entirely banished. At least, that is what we were told to strive for. (I may have misunderstood my seminary instruction on this point, it would not be the first time.)

    A few years later, as a missionary who did not think he had had such a transcendent experience, I eventually became comfortable again with saying “I know the Church is true” in the sense that, based on my experience and my less than transcendent spiritual experiences, in my heart and in my mind (1) I was confident in the substantial accuracy of the fundamental truth claims taught be the institutional Church, (2) I had experienced in my life, and seen in the lives of others, the peace that usually comes from striving to live by the core teachings of the Church, (3) my experience indicated that my leaders, while sometimes mistaken in decisions, were almost always well-intentioned, that their decisions were usually correct, and that some decisions were informed by some sort of spiritual insight or inspiration, and (4) that God wanted me to belong to and participate in the Church.

    I still occasionally use the phrasealogy “I know the Church is true”, which to me signifies the conclusions and feelings I reached as a missionary. But more often, instead of stating my conclusory statement, I try to describe the feelings and thoughts of my mind and heart that underly that conclusion–my personal experience and feeling about a God who loves all creation and wishes the best for each of us, an Atonement that allows reconciliation to God, revelation to the seeker Joseph Smith, et cetera.

  30. How do you define knowing?

    1) Being present at an event and witnessing something happening with the senses (sight, touch, hearing, etc.).

    2) Having the Holy Spirit testify of a principle to a person in his/her heart or mind.

    I suppose, arguably, that neither form of knowing can really be transferred to another person. I also suppose for many, the account of someone in category #1 would be more compelling than category #2.

    Off the top of my head, these are the ways I would define “knowing.” Just the same, if someone gets up in church and says “I know the Church is true”, I pretty much come to feel that they are in category #2. I don’t usually think it means the person has had a vision of God, Jesus or of angels, so to speak – though that is certainly still a real possibility.

    Some people get caught up deeply in the philosophic question of “how do you really know anything?” to such a degree that they are extremely skeptical of it being possible. It’s a real question to ask, but I think getting to caught up in that kind of approach could be an impediment to expressing or accepting the bearing testimony in the normal colloquial speech of the church (the use of the words “I know”.

  31. #19

    I echo RebeccaJ’s point:

    “…I don’t know how much harmony I’m willing to sacrifice to achieve [communal inquiry] in the institutional church.”

    Our Church lingo may make Sunday School and Testimony Meeting somewhat (very?) predictable, but I appreciate that I rarely see any fist fights break out.

    Thanks for helping me see a virtue in Mormon speak.

  32. This is off the top of my head, so don’t hold me to an exact quote, but I’ve been partial to the following statement from Nephi and other Book of Mormon writers, “I know this record is true, because I made it with mine own hands.”

    To me, something is “true” in the sense we are discussing if it is authentic to the experience of the one making the statement – nothing more, nothing less. If I have experienced something strongly enough to believe it fully and completely – even if I still can step back and talk of how it might not be rationally objective or complete, then it is true to me. I could get technical and verbose, but, in the end, I’m still saying that “I know”. I don’t have a problem at all with that type of statement, as long as it is sincere and not a thoughtless, memorized recitation.

    Having said that, I generally try to exclude the statement “I know the Church is true” in my own testimonies and focus on a particular principal or two that I recently have understood a little more fully or deeply.

  33. A great way to think about this issue, thanks. a thanks to J. Stapley for the Sunstone article recommendation.

  34. Does our rhetoric indicate that we value Church more for the harmony it brings to our life than the knowledge it gives us?

    This question reminded me of a conversation I had last week with a critic of the Church who proselytes specifically to Mormons. He feels that the Church holds itself above God in that one can presumably believe heresy and retain membership so long as that person does not try to teach the heresy. In other words, he felt that we don’t mind allowing someone who believes God doesn’t actually exist to remain a member, though if they sought to teach heresy, or even, say, if they committed adultery, their membership would more likely be tried.

    I realize situations are not so black and white, and there don’t seem to be too many atheist Mormons (Steve Evans I am looking in your direction). Still, it is interesting to note the situation that way. Your post here helps enlighten me a little further on the issue.

  35. BHodges, for what it’s worth, that attribute of the Church that the critic despises is called judging not that we be not judged. I just wish more members really understood and practiced that, even as we hold institutionally to certain things that can’t be compromised without prophetic pronouncement.

  36. StillConfused says:

    I was also asked “Do you believe (He had given up on the “knows” at this point) that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one and only true Church?” This is another one of those things we say a lot, but what does it really mean? My answer was, “If by this statement, you mean do I think that people who are good but are not Mormon are going to go to hell because they are not Mormon, then no. I don’t believe that. I personally believe that my God sees the good in all people and judges them accordingly.” (Going to hell may have been a bit strong of a term but I think my point was clear.

  37. StillConfused says:

    #34 At some point in the intervention, HC said to me, “I hope you don’t feel I am being judgmental.” I really didn’t; I viewed him as just asking me questions; nothing judgmental in that. But I wanted to make a point that I feel is often missed when people are in fact being judgmental. My response was, “No I do not feel you are being judgmental. But even if you were, it does not matter in the slightest to me. I know who I am and love myself for who I am. My God knows who I am and loves me for who I am. Frankly, that is all that matters to me.”

  38. ‘Someone who says “I know the Church is true” in their testimony knows exactly what they mean.’

    But, if someone decides to have the effrontery to ask him or her, “What, exactly, do you mean when you say that you know the Church is true?”, do you think it is more or less likely that the person being queried as to the specifics of the meaning might just start to wonder a bit about the questioner’s own testimony?

    I cringe when a small child (younger than eight) gets up in Fast and Testimony Meeting and says the magic words. I suppose it’s entirely possible that angels have, indeed, visited this child and shown to him or her what a previous angel showed Nephi, but I tend to have my doubts. I think it’s much more likely that simple parroting is taking place here, and I start to muse on the meaning of “false witness”.

  39. Mark,

    I think children, young as they are, really can really develop strong testimonies of the gospel and they can _know_ it is true.

    Their knowledge might lack sophistication and nuance – but I think they feel the Spirit just as strongly as anyone. In fact, the gospel message and scriptures stories may resonate the strongest with children because it is fresh and new to them. I can still remember reading scripture stories as a child and how intense the feelings were when it came to reading about Christ’s crucifixion and the resurrection.

    I wonder sometimes if now I have the affinity for the New Testament that I did as a child.

  40. Of course, since the children I cringe over are, indeed, younger than eight, obviously the term “false witness” can’t really come into play here, at least so far as the kids are concerned.

    Doesn’t really make the cringing stop, though…

    On the other hand, it just now came to mind how impressed I recall being with the Stake President’s son (I’m guessing, but he was probably just coming up on eleven or twelve) in the France, Paris stake when he got up to bear his testimony early on during my mission (some 24 years ago). It was one of those “holy cow, this kid really knows his stuff” kinds of feelings.

  41. Oops. Make that 34 years ago. Time flies…

  42. I was just reading Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling where it describes JS’s tendency to chastise members for their shortcomings.

    So, while I do see “harmony” as a goal of religion, I don’t necessarily see it as part of the path to that goal.

  43. One thing that these excellent comments has made me think is that these phrases might also serve as kinds of verbal placeholders for us as we continue to grow in our faith. Maybe they allow us to have continuity in our personal expressions of belief even while our understandings change as we grow. “Truth” means something very different to me now than it did ten years ago, but the very undefinability of the word has encouraged me to keep rethinking what I mean by it while allowing me some rhetorical continuity.

  44. SC, those sorts of questions are ones no high councilman should EVER be asking ANYONE in an official situation. They have no authority to ask probing questions about someone’s beliefs. AFAIK that is the pervue of those holding priesthood keys, or in some specific instances, their counsellors.

    I’m appalled. Am I wrong, or are high councilmen treated differently in the US than where I am from?

    DW

  45. #44 – I had the same thought. I can’t imagine a situation where a HC would be asking those questions – especially over the phone. I also can’t see why those exact questions would be asked; they simply aren’t how I have ever heard those types of questions worded in all my years in the Church.

    However, that is a separate thread topic – totally irrelevant to this thread, so I will leave it up to Natalie to allow that threadjack or not.

  46. Sorry about the threadjacking. But as a former bishop and high councilman, I just get very annoyed at stories of ecclesiastical abuse by those who suppose they have a little authority.

    Rant over!

    DW

  47. StillConfused says:

    #46 – Good thing I didn’t tell you some of the other questions then!

  48. SC, I agree. That’s an odd conversation at best, and not one I have heard of ever happening over the phone. What was his object in asking?

    Steve:

    Really, John? I use it but I don’t know exactly what it means…

    Then perhaps you shouldn’t use it. I’m not trying to be rude, but I think people, especially in bearing testimony, should at least know what they mean by the words they use, even if the words necessarily harbor some ambiguity for the listeners.

    Personally I have always understood it to mean this:

    Having the Holy Spirit testify of a principle to a person in his/her heart or mind.

    I can’t imagine what else it could possibly mean. Joseph Smith, Sidnyey Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses all had experiences which went beyond witnesses of the Spirit and possibly others in the modern church have had such experiences as well, but I have always understood that, for most, spiritual knowledge comes from the Spirit speaking to your spirit.

    I know the Church is true (though I rarely say it exactly that way, as it’s not very specific), because I have had many small spritual experiences (and one large one) which have confirmed this fact and leave me no room for doubt.

    Sometimes I don’t like having this knowledge. Sometimes it condemns me. But I have it, and I can’t ever deny it. I think calling it belief would not be accurate.

    I also dislike the idea that I’m using these words to promote harmony or belong to a group. That’s not why I use these words. I hope it’s not why others use them. I think that would be dishonest.

  49. “I also dislike the idea that I’m using these words to promote harmony or belong to a group.”

    Really, MCQ? Why is promoting harmony a bad thing? Your comment made me think about all the “group” references in Moroni 6 where it outlines that members of the church were to have their names taken down so they could be remembered; that they met together often in order to speak to one another about the welfare of their souls. Very much a group, promoting harmony; not just a room full of individuals.

  50. You are misunderstanding me, Hunter. I’m not suggesting that promoting harmony is a bad thing in any way. I hope we do promote harmony in all we do as members of the Church. Blessed are the peacemakers, after all.

    All I’m saying is that, when I bear my testimony, I am not using the (apparently rankeling) words “I know the Church is true,” or their equivalent, for the purpose of promoting harmony, or group identification or any other, however well-intentioned, purpose.

    I’m saying, rather, that the Spirit of God has specifically revealed to me, through my spirit, that certain critical principles of the Church are literally of divine origin and that it is my responsibility to uphold them the best I can and testify of them when moved upon to do so.

    That’s what I mean by those words and not anything else. I had always assumed others meant the same thing. Perhaps I was naive or misinformed, but I hope not.

  51. What I was saying is very similar to MCQ, who has given much more detail. The phrase is far from empty for the speaker; however, it admittedly does not refer to any proof that anyone in the audience could test, even if it is very meaningful for the speaker. But, as a tenet of our faith, any audience member can seek the same testimony through an appeal to God.

    The knowledge of which is spoken in these testimonies really is knowledge for the person who says those words (usually — I suppose some might be using them because they perceive that as being expected of them). But, as has been pointed out, it is not the same kind of knowledge as that gained from being an eye witness to an event or from having performed experiments based on the scientific method. If knowledge can only consist of knowledge obtained through the scientific method then perhaps our testimonies are meaningless. As a matter of fact, I know many people who believe our testimonies are indeed meaningless.

    I don’t believe this though, and I am struggling to see how this concept of “I know the Church is true” as a top-down method of harmony control can be reconciled with the sincere expression that it actually is when coming from a devout believer who says it because his or her life experiences have given him or her that knowledge.

  52. MCQ, I think your comments in this are helpful. I don’t imagine that every person who gets up and says “I know” is bearing a true testimony. However, I also think for some members of church, in regards to the bearing testimony or testimony meetings, there is an exaggerated level of cynicism and skepticism. If a person does not feel that he/she can get up and sincerely say “I know the Church is true” and thus refuses to do so … I can respect that. But any particular individual’s unwillingness or inability to use the words “I know” should not unduly hamper or undermine others who choose to do so.

    One of the nice things about the gift of the Holy Ghost is that others can feel it – so if someone gets up and bears an honest, humble testimony, and does so with conviction, others in the room can feel it too. I imagine if someone gets up and bears a testimony that is fatuous or if someone is lying about what he/she feels or knows, that the Spirit won’t back them up.

  53. I think that the phrase “I know the church is true” defines a striving for a particular pattern of behavior. It may or may not have anything to do with an actual knowledge base. Rather there is an acceptance of behavioral modification we call repentance as an active force in the person’s life.

    As in so many things, it gets down to the intent of the speaker. The devil knows the church is true more surely than I ever will. The difference is, he is not repentant..

  54. If we “know” something is true, then of what use is faith? It seems to me we have a vocabulary of truth but no vocabulary of faith. I always think of this when someone who used to be up bearing their testimony every single Sunday stops coming to church. Were they just a shooting star, or was something missing?

  55. I think our common rhetoric sometimes gets in the way of expressing ourselves and understanding each other in a meaningful way. I am much more edified when people explain what they mean when they say “The Church is true” (or simply avoid the phrase entirely) than when they simply use that phrase. I am deepened spiritually when I allow myself to think about my changing testimony using other language.

    I don’t mean to imply that I feel that those who say “I know this church is true” are insincere. I’m not sure that I know what they mean, but I accept their sincerity. (I usually enjoy testimony meetings.)

    On a side note, the first time my non-Mormon husband came to a testimony meeting, he was a bit taken back by the focus on “I know this church is true” of that particular meeting. He didn’t really understand what the phrase meant, and he also thought it was a bit “cultish.” His reaction gave me some food for thought.

  56. Rameumptom says:

    I think that that knowledge and belief can go hand in hand. Alma 32′s seed showed forth proof during its journey to becoming a fully fruitful tree. Alma acknowledged that the person had an imperfect knowledge of the truthfulness of the seed when it began to sprout. But it was a knowledge, nonetheless.
    It is in this form that I think the statement “I know the Church is true” is correct. It is an imperfect knowledge, but can in some ways be considered more than mere belief, as it is based upon evidence (or what the individual considers evidence).

    Hopefully, some day Kevin Barney will get his own Urim and Thummim and will progress from belief to knowledge. :)

  57. If we “know” something is true, then of what use is faith?

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Faith is absolutely required for spiritual knowledge. The only type of knowledge which would not require faith is perfect knowledge based on some kind of eyewitness.

  58. In the 1950s, the accepted phrase was ” I know this is the only true church”. Is this a transformation in Mormon thinking, or just using different words for the same feelings?

  59. “Someone who says “I know the Church is true” in their testimony knows exactly what they mean.”

    I agree that if many who use this phrase were actually required to further define what they mean, that they would have a difficult time doing so.

    My problem with “I know the Church is true” is that it takes advantage of a language that no one outside of a testimony meeting (both members and non-members) ever uses. If we strive to define the word “church” there are two straightforward definitions: 1. a building used for worship 2. a particular Christian organization, namely, the one we all belong to.

    We all know that when someone says “I know the church is true” they are not referring to the building itself, but are generally referring to the organization. BUT what in the world does it mean for an organization to be true? Let’s use that phrase and swap out the word “church” for other organizations:

    “I know the YMCA is true”
    “I know Wells Fargo is true”
    “I know Bose is true”
    “I know Calvin Klein is true”

    Even if we go so far as to generalize it and say “I know this organization is true” I still have no idea what that phrase is supposed to mean, it could have any number of meanings. If a phrase could potentially have any number of meanings and it is used in public, then it is generally not a very efficient form of communication. While Jesus intended his parables to have multiple meanings, anticipated this and proceeded to tell them, he was making a very conscious decision to communicate in a many-layered fashion. When many people use the phrase “I know the church is true” I cannot help but doubt that they are using the phrase because it is ambiguous and continue using it in spite of it.

    I want to hear details, in the same way, I suppose, that God wants to hear details in our prayers. We can over-generalize and say “bless us,” or we can get specific and offer thanks for very particular things, and request very particular things. I have never heard counsel to generalize and dilute our language in prayer, but I have many times heard counsel to continually clarify, specify, and offer more and more detail.

    Could not the same counsel be applied to testimony bearing? Instead of saying “I know the church is true” what if you break it down and say “I know that what this church teaches is true. I know that it is the church organized by God on this earth, . . .etc. etc. etc.”. Becoming clearer in our testimony communication would not only benefit those who were listening, but also those who were bearing it, just like it does in our prayers. It would require those who use the phrase and actually don’t know what they mean by it actually define what they mean by it, and as a result, would have a better understanding of what they actuallydo know.

    If you can’t define something (or at least begin to define something) chances are you don’t know what it is. The act of defining and refining our own testimonies by using words that clearly communicate our feelings and beliefs is not only spiritually and mentally therapeutic, but spiritually and mentally illuminating. It feels like progress, and isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing for the rest of eternity?

  60. Latter-day Guy says:

    “I know Bose is true”

    As do I; it’s expensive but true.

    RE 18:

    In fact, one could argue that the phrase actually makes a lot of people really mad.

    I know, right? Every time I hear those words I am gripped with a nearly uncontrollable rage. I just feel like I have to go punch a baby or something.

    Interesting post, Natalie. Excellent food for thought.

  61. I endorse SamR’s comment.

    Totally trivial aside, it reminds me of when a friend used to make fun of testimony meetings at (then-)Ricks College and he would imitate weepy girls saying, “I know that my roommates…are true!” It was funny because you knew what it meant at the same time that you knew it didn’t mean anything.

  62. Mark Brown says:

    Just to add to SamR’s comment # 59 -

    I remember a long, loud conversation with my roommate at BYU over this question. He wanted to pin down exactly what we mean when we say the book of Mormon is true. He concluded that everybody in the world has a testimony that the BoM is a true book. It has a cover, binding, and pages with text on them. Therefore, it is truly a book.

    Yes, this roommate was a philosophy major.

  63. Very nice, SamR. Turning an annoyance into some excellent constructive advice.

  64. StillConfused says:

    If “promoting religious harmony” means being polite and respectful, then I am all for that. But I don’t see what that has to do with saying certain catch phrases. For me personally, the terminology that works is “I am willing to accept that.” I don’t really go any further. I guess I don’t really see what it matters since if someone is basing their testimony off of mine, they have a whole other set of issues to deal with.

    Also, why is it that when Mormon’s are touched by the spirit, they cry? Why can’t we do Hallelujahs and Amens and get all rowdy?

  65. 38 — The first person to participate in our most recent Fast and Testimony meeting was in the neighborhood of eight. I don’t remember a lot of the words she said, but they seemed in the neighborhood of the standard child’s testimony for the most part. I think she said “I know God loves me.” She cried. She meant it. She knew what she said she knew. Quite possibly the most powerful testimony I’ve ever seen borne, even if it lasted less than a minute.

    Natalie — I accept that there is ambiguity in the phrase. I acknowledge that I would have a hard time defining exactly what some of the key words in the phrase mean. But, nonetheless, I know it’s true, and when I use the phrase, I mean something that the phrase covers. I also know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, although I have no idea what the Book of Mormon is or who it is describing. I know that God runs the Church, although I see not a few things the Church does that I don’t believe God directed or wanted.

    We see through a glass darkly, but it will be clear to us later on. I’ll take ambiguity as a necessary step between complete ignorance and perfect understanding.

  66. I always thought it was a corruption of the phrase “I know the [Gospel as taught by the] Church is true.” Not that the organization was true.

  67. I like the simply explanation of the CHI regarding testimony meetings: “After the sacrament, the bishopric member who is conducting bears a brief testimony. He then invites members to bear heartfelt testimonies and to relate faith promoting experiences. The bishopric encourages members to keep their testimonies brief so more people may have the opportunity to participate.” CHI Book 1, p. 66.

    To me, what matters is whether our “testimony” is heart felt, not whether we use our “in group” “special language” of testimony. And while a mere listing of propositional truths (such as the so-called “five part” or “five finger” testimony sometimes described in primary) is appropriate if genuinely heart felt, I usually feel more edified if I hear a little more that underlies the propositional conclusions, including what the handbook calls “faith promoting experiences” (as distinct, I think, from rumors).

    I also like the piece in the Clark Memorandum by Tessa Meyer Santiago noting the place and importance of “narrative” testimony, even in the Mormon culture (where, as noted, propositional summaries have often become the norm in testimony bearing). http://www.jrcls.org/publications/clark_memo/pdf_Clark_Memorandum/cmF07_LoRes.pdf (article begins on page 30)

  68. Peter LLC says:

    By contrast, a legislator wants to create language that is unambiguous, since society functions more smoothly when the rules are clear.

    Actually, society functions best when there is a fudge factor sufficient to allow all sides of any given issue to claim victory.

  69. I know some things, as MCQ describes. I believe some things. I hope some things. I have no idea about a whole lot of things.

    The difference is pretty clear when I speak and share my testimony.

  70. Jim Donaldson says:

    Even though we never call it that, I have long felt that we Mormons have a liturgy, just like the mainstream traditional Protestants and Catholics, it’s just a little different. We have ritual incantations (“I know the church is true” is one of them), highly specialized vocabulary, uniform sentence construction, predictably similar speaking styles, and essentially identical prayers composed of interchangeable stock phrases. In addition, given the cycle of repetition of the usual sacrament meeting talk topics, even something of a liturgical calendar.

    It is really how we worship. I can remember no more than a dozen things that I’ve ever heard in 35 years of every-week reasonably attentive sacrament meeting attendance as an adult, but no worry. I don’t think it is supposed to be informative or even inspiring. It is supposed to be worship—a weekly community ritual, centered on the sacrament—to put our relationship with God in perspective and regularly reinforce the discipline of church membership. It is supposed to be like home, familiar, predictable, and comforting. Fast and testimony meeting is a clear example.

    To ask people to make sense, is really asking too much, and you wouldn’t remember it if they did, though I admit that it is a better (even if equally forgettable) experience when speakers do make sense and the Spirit more regularly attends those meetings where there is coherent discourse.

    I think I agree with the the original post that such things do contribute to harmony as a side benefit, but mostly I think they are meant to forge group identity and, as far as possible, homogenization.

  71. 70 — I can’t tell you how much you’ve failed to describe my experience. All of the things you’ve described are things that I use sometimes, when I find they fit, and that I disregard whenever I have reason. I do, frequently, find them annoying, and they do not connect me with the people I worship with weekly.

    The things that connect me with those people are the times when we’ve served together, or when we’ve had lengthy meaningful conversations that usually include the phrase “there are people we go to Church with who wouldn’t be comfortable with this, but….”

    We aren’t homogeneous. We’re compatible. We’re family. We share some characteristics, but then we diverge and are different people with different strengths, personalities and beliefs.

    I’d say more, but I have to go home teaching right now.

  72. 71 – Wholly agree as to we as Church members being “compatible” or more truthful, striving to be compatible. As I recall, Sister Okazaki gave a talk some 12 years ago about how we as members do not come from the same mold and that we need to recognize the individualism.
    Given same I have come to view the statement “The Church is true” as being distinguishable from the statement, “The Gospel is true”. Given that the “Church” is not just the structure itself but the application of that structure by as well as the interaction between human beings who more often than not are mistake prone, I prefer to testify of my personal beliefs as to the Gospel being true.
    To some I may be splitting hairs but after having had the experience of living in different areas of the United States and the “Church” as it was operated not being the same because of the impact of members who served in leadership in the “Church”, I prefer to make the distinction.

  73. Reading the Doctrine and Covenants this time around, it has really struck me how much the mission of the Church seems to be social–we are charged with building a community of believers. In this we are very different from evangelical Christianity (or, for that matter, evangelical anything), in which the emphasis is not on the social but the personal. Many of us liberal Mormons like to shift the focus to the personal, individual experience of church doctrine and practice, which is a very important component of discipleship. But the Church is for social discipleship. And testimony meeting is a big part of social discipleship. If people don’t care about the social meanings and uses of their testimonies borne from the pulpit, then they really don’t have a reason to bear testimony from the pulpit. If it’s all about personal testimony, then bear a personal testimony in your personal prayer. We have testimony meeting to draw us together. Sometimes testimony formulas get in the way of that, making it a more impersonl experience. But sometimes–I would say more often than not–our shared language draws us together. And that’s the point of going to church.

  74. Antonio Parr says:

    re: Testimony. “I know the Church is true” has been recycled too many times to be effective for a large number of people. On the other hand, sharing “experience A” and describing how “experience A” blessed you and blessed others is worth its weight in gold.

    Van Morrision talks about, as a young man, feeling “wondrous and lit up with a sense of everlasting life”. These words describe beautifully the fellings I have felt during those times that I have felt the Spirit. Such new and fresh ways of describing sublime experiences are particularly beneficial to me, and, I trust, to others.

  75. Antonio Parr says:

    The actual Van Morrision quote is feeling “wondrous and lit up inside with a sense of everlasting lift”. It can be found on his fantastic LP/CD “Hymns to the Silence”.

  76. Antonio Parr says:

    OK — not “lift” but “light“.

    I’ll stop now. One more strike and I’m out.

  77. Antonio–I love the songs on Hymns to the Silence. I just wish he’d re-release it without all the background singers and synths. If every testimony could be like a Van Morrison song, the Church would be growing faster than Rick Warren’s church.

    I agree that narrative testimonies are usually more effective. But many of us are too shy or self-effacing for sharing personal stories like that. There should be plenty of room in testimony meeting for both kinds of expressions without any scolding, either for departing from the formulas or for hewing to it. (Not that anyone here is advocating scolding.)

    I like the Quaker practice of letting silence rein in meetings unless the Spirit definitely moves one to speak (briefly). Maybe this is for a different post, but my testimony scolding would go to the folks who break a silence in testimony meeting simply to break the silence. The silence between testimonies is my favorite part. Anyone else in favor of asking speakers to wait a full minute between testimonies to give testimonies room to settle in?

  78. 72 — I should clarify that I wasn’t claiming compatibility with all Mormons — just with those that I connect with. I’m not for every audience.

    I understand the concept that there is more or less true-ness in the Church vs the Gospel, but I don’t accept it. Eugene England’s essay “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel” indicates the limitations in the true-ness of each part of that, and how they are connected. No matter what, our ability to recognize and understand truth is limited. So, if I say “I know the Church is true,” or I say “I believe the Gospel as taught by the Church tells the truth about God,” the additional details of the latter version add little useful information because the words are so woefully inadequate in describing the spiritual understanding underlying the words. And adding more and more words only reveals that insurmountable inadequacy.

    Testimonies are only partially about the words used to bear them. There is a spiritual aspect which the words serve a minor connection in expressing. Simply standing up and saying “I know this Church is true,” says very little, but, when it’s said by somebody for whom the words express a spiritual understanding, to someone who is receptive to the Spirit, a great deal of meaning can be communicated.

    And, when you hear it said by a little girl who means it so much she’s unable to control her crying, it reaches into your heart and reminds you of how much power there really can be in a testimony.

    Never let the words get in the way of that.

  79. Someone has probably already mentioned it, but just in case…

    Dalin Oaks has a great talk on the “know the church is true.”

    I’ll sum up his line of reasoning with a simple, I know I love my wife statement and compare that to my knowledge that I know the church is true.

    Nothing you can do or say will change that knowledge.

    Well… unless you show me some pictures of where my wife really was last Thursday…

  80. “30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—”

    I’m a little disappointed that no one (that I saw in this thread) has yet mentioned the scriptural basis for the phrase that “the church is true.” The above is from the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse thirty. They are words spoken by Christ himself, and I think that scripturally they, along with the rest of the history of the Great Apostasy and Restoration of the Gospel of Christ, illustrate very clearly the meaning of a “true” church. Summarily, I would say that a true church is one commissioned directly by God to lead its members to salvation. A false church would be one that claims that commission where it does not possess it.

    Moreover, I don’t see anything wrong with the phrase being repeated often in testimony meetings. I do hope that more people will study it out and ask God for a witness of the doctrines that pertain to the church being true, but inasmuch as anyone who says that the church is true is (knowingly or unknowingly) using the words of the Lord himself, I have no problem with it.

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